‘False Hope’ Or Four More Years? Ohio Valley Stakeholders Reflect On Trump Energy Policy  Monday, Aug 31 2020 

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In 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump was all-in on the fossil fuel industry. In a 2016 rally in Charleston, West Virginia, the candidate proudly accepted an endorsement from that state’s coal association, donning a hardhat while he mimed digging coal. To thundering applause, he promised to bring back coal jobs to the struggling Appalachian coalfields. 

Four years later, there are fewer jobs in coal than ever, and that enthusiasm was largely absent from the energy pitch the Republican Party made to the American people in its four-night-long convention last week. That’s left stakeholders in Ohio Valley coal regions reading the tea leaves on what another four years of a Trump Administration might look like. 

This story is the first in a series revisiting themes, places and people in the new Ohio Valley ReSource book, “Appalachian Fall.”


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‘The Proof Is In The Pudding:’ Coal Country Responds To Democrats’ Clean Energy Transition  Monday, Aug 24 2020 

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Democrats made their pitch to the American people during a largely virtual Democratic National Convention and addressing climate change emerged as a central tenet of the party’s plan. 

The party platform spells out a major investment in green energy jobs and infrastructure in order for America to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emission no later than by 2050. Environmental justice is a key component of the Democrat’s climate plan and it references ensuring fossil fuel workers and communities receive investment and support during this clean energy transition. 

“As President, Joe Biden will rejoin the international climate agreement, and the United States will once again lead on this critical issue at home,” New Mexico Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said while standing in front of a field of solar panels. “He’ll invest in energy workers and he will deliver for working families across the U.S., helping them build meaningful careers, while accelerating our nation and world into a clean, green 21st century and well beyond.”


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What’s Happened To Ky.’s Snowy Winters? Blame, Or Credit, Our Warming Climate Tuesday, Mar 3 2020 

Snow is melting faster in Kentucky as warmer average winters bring about fewer days of snow cover, according to State Climatologist Stuart Foster.

Foster, with the Kentucky Climate Center at Western Kentucky University, analyzed decades of winter weather data across the Commonwealth looking at how long snow sticks around.

In three of four cities, he found a defined downward trend in the number of days when snow covered the ground. And across the state, he’s seen fewer winters where cold temperatures maintained the snow cover for weeks on end.

Kentucky hasn’t experienced a severe bout of winter weather since the late 1970’s. Foster’s data is consistent with a warming climate.

“The thing that really stands out is not so much a year-to-year fluctuation in temperature or snowfall, but it’s been more than 40 years since we’ve had what we would call a harsh winter,” Foster said.

The state’s last winter with unrelenting snow, wind and cold occurred in January 1978 when Louisville recorded more than 15.7 inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service.

Kenton County Public Library

The 1978 blizzard in Covington, KY.

Snow accumulated after several small storms in the first half of the month, only to be met with a blizzard toward January’s end. Some residents were trapped in their homes while Kentucky issued a state of emergency across most of the Commonwealth.

“You used to see those types of winters with greater frequency,” Foster said.

But that doesn’t mean the state hasn’t seen its share of cold snaps and winter weather. In 1994, Shelbyville set the record low temperature for the state at -37 degrees. In 2009, a wintry mix brought freezing rain that knocked out power for more than 600,000 homes.

Rather, Kentucky wintertime temperatures are highly variable from one year to the next, Foster said. Some winters it snows quite a bit, others not at all, he said. That’s in part driven by the state’s wintertime proximity to the polar jet stream – the swiftly-moving band of wind caused by the earth’s rotation.

But overall, the winters are getting warmer, and as a result, the snow melts more quickly. During the last 30 years, Louisville, Lexington and Paducah have seen the average number of days with snow cover decline by about 10 percent, Foster said.

“With the warming conditions and the lack of any really prolonged harsh winters, we’ve seen a reduction of days with snow cover,” Foster said.

This year’s winter weather has been wet and warm with not a lot of snowfall, but a whole lot of rain, according to the National Weather Service. Far from a white Christmas, temperatures rose into the 60s on Christmas day, and hit the 70s in early January. That was followed by a third straight year of Ohio River flooding in February.

Temperatures in Kentucky have risen an average of about 1.41 degrees over the last three decades, according to the Associated Press.

The warmer climate increases the odds of extreme weather events fueling storms as well as droughts. And for the last four decades, it’s meant Kentucky winters with less snow cover.

Just Transition: Amid Climate Debate And Coal’s Decline, West Virginia Considers Its Future Monday, Feb 17 2020 

On a recent soggy Wednesday evening, dozens of West Virginians packed a conference room inside the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center to discuss the need for a “just transition” for coal-impacted communities.

As the nation grapples with climate change, the need for a fair transition for workers and communities that depend upon coal jobs and revenue has also gained traction. Nearly every 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful has touted some version of the idea, ranging from the expansive “Green New Deal” championed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to former Vice President Joe Biden’s more modest mix of worker training and direct assistance for coal country.

In West Virginia, discussions are starting to get attention in the state’s capital despite strong political support for the coal industry.

“When you’re hearing a call for a just transition for coal-reliant communities, folks are saying ‘look, starting now and into the future, we’re going to decarbonize the economy,’” said Ann Eisenberg, a law professor at the University of South Carolina. “There will be disproportionate losses imposed on coal-reliant communities. And that’s unfair. So we’re going to offset the losses. And that is where I think this is a good thing. And it’s also tricky.”

Eisenberg was one of a handful of experts who spoke at the event hosted by West Virginia University’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development, the nonprofit West Virginia Center on Climate Change (an offshoot of conservation group Friends of Blackwater), and the left-leaning West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Three groups hosted a just transition discussion on Feb. 5, 2020 in Charleston, WV.

The speakers facilitated a conversation about what constitutes a “just transition” as well as how West Virginia and other regions that depend on coal could actually get there.

Adele Morris with the Brookings Institution said the first step is to acknowledge the clear data about coal. Even without a comprehensive climate policy, the fuel is already losing ground in the region and across the country. Low natural gas prices and the falling cost of renewable energy have priced many coal plants out of the market.

hindsight2020-mine-empAlexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Federal data show since 2009, mining employment and coal production has fallen by about 50 percent in the Ohio Valley. The energy shift is already underway, Morris said, but without the part that would help communities make the transition.

hindsight2020-mine-prodAlexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

“We’re in it. We’re in the transition,” said Morris, who is a senior fellow and policy director at the nonpartisan think tank. “And it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But it’s not fair. And that’s what I think should be urgently at the top of the agenda of the policymakers from coal country, and they’re not, in my opinion.”

Legislative Attempt

One lawmaker is making a pitch in West Virginia. State Del. Evan Hansen, a Democrat representing the north-central county of Monongalia, has introduced a bipartisan bill that would create a state Just Transition Office, and a community-led advisory committee that would focus on helping West Virginia communities affected by the decline of coal.

“The primary goal here is to write a just transition plan for the state of West Virginia that would look at ways to funnel funding into these communities and other types of resources into these communities in a manner that’s led by what people in those communities think is best,” Hansen said.

The bill is modeled after similar legislation that passed in Colorado. On Wednesday, the West Virginia version passed out of one of the two committees to which it was referred, but Hansen acknowledges it faces a long road to becoming law with the state’s legislative session more than halfway done.

Still, he believes the appetite is growing among the state’s lawmakers to address coal’s decline.

“I would say privately many legislators of both parties acknowledge that there is a transition going on and that this is one of the most important issues that we need to deal with as a Legislature,” Hansen said.

Not everyone is a fan of the bill, including the West Virginia Coal Association.

“Sounds to me like that they think that it would be much better if it were something other than the coal miners,” said the group’s president Bill Raney. “And that bothers me a whole lot because we got the best coal miners in the world.”

Raney’s group is pushing a bill this legislative session that would require West Virginia coal plants to burn the same amount of coal they did in 2019 in the years ahead, regardless of what makes most economic sense.

Of major note during the discussion was how to pay for a “just transition.”

Today most economic transition work in the region comes from federal programs including the Appalachian Regional Commission and Abandoned Mine Land program funding, which offer grants to coal-affected communities in the millions of dollars range.

Morris has estimated the region will require tens of billions of dollars over the next decade and would require some kind of regulatory leadership from Washington, D.C., preferably a carbon tax. Democratic candidates who have supported the idea have differing ways to fund it, although most rely heavily on investing in clean energy and decarbonizing the economy through a “Green New Deal.”

Some in the region have encouraged lawmakers and candidates looking at these climate policies to engage with residents directly.

That includes Cecil Roberts, head of the United Mine Workers of America. In September, he spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. He expressed concern the type of sweeping change Democratic presidential candidates are promising may be too big of a lift for Congress given its past track record in helping coal country.

“We want our health care saved, and if you can’t do that, and it’s been 10 years, how do you think we’re going to believe that you’re going to be able to give us a just transition from the coal industry to some other employment?” he said.

Kentucky Conversations 

Chuck Fluharty, President and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, helped to organize a community-centered, just transition model in eastern Kentucky called Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR. He said SOAR has shown this type of work is possible, especially if a community-centric approach is embraced. However, it’s not easy.

SOAR’s premise is built upon a collective impact investing model that engaged the public, private and philanthropic sectors.

IMG_4112Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Kentucky entrepreneurs show their products at the 2019 SOAR Summit.

“The real proof of the pudding is in how broad collective commitment is, and is it there for the money or is it there for the future?” he said. “How much it is about investing and not simply dropping dollars on the table.”

Some politicians hope to engage coalfield communities directly about how to balance implementing climate legislation while protecting workers and investing in communities. Kentucky Democratic state senator and U.S. Senate candidate Charles Booker recently launched a series of town meetings on the subject in the heart of eastern Kentucky coal country.

Even among those who support a just transition, questions remain about how best to do it. Morris said there is little data on what has worked in economic transitions in the past. Her team has looked at the impact of military base closures, for example, but said the analogy isn’t perfect. Worker retraining efforts often have mixed results.

“There’s this policy design challenge of how do you get from the wholesale dollars of the federal government into well designed retail level grants and assistance and so on,” she said. “I’m still struggling with exactly how you do that in a way that gets those resources out, but does it in a way that that gives people comfort that it’s responsibly allocated.”

In a report published last July, Morris and colleagues at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University quantified just how much of a coal-producing county’s budget came from coal, and how big a hole their budgets might face without coal revenue.

Then the authors turned to the various policy proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions, which would set a price on each ton of carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere.

Morris said that the revenue generated by such policies could be steered into the type of investments needed and at a scale that would make a just transition more likely.

For example, a carbon tax of $25 per ton would likely raise a trillion dollars in revenue over 10 years, she said.

“And that kind of revenue allows for a very generous support for coal-reliant areas,” Morris said.

After Deadly Floods, West Virginia Created A Resiliency Office. It’s Barely Functioning. Monday, Jan 27 2020 

The rain came hard and fast early on the morning of June 23, 2016. By 2 p.m., water was knee deep in Bill Bell’s appliance store on Main Street in Rainelle, a small town on the western edge of Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Bell began elevating the washing machines and dishwashers, thinking that would be enough. Within hours, he’d lose it all. Today, his shop is up and running once again, but the memory of the flood runs deep.

“To be honest with you, everybody here sleeps on pins and needles when it calls for a big rain,” he says.

John Wyatt, a Baptist minister, city councilor and local music and craft shop owner, remembers pulling his friends and neighbors out of the water.

He helped rescue 22 people using a two-person kayak and a flat-bottomed boat: The owner of the local funeral home and her elderly father. A young couple stranded on top of the baseball dugout at the local park. He remembers the swiftness of the water and the way propane gas drifted on top of the torrent like an eerie fog. As he drives through the neighborhood, he says quietly that not everyone survived.

“The second house down that street, there was an old gentleman that lost his life,” he says.

Kara Lofton/WVPB

Flooding in the town of White Sulfur Springs in June 2016.

About a two hour-drive to the north, Sarah Bird had gone out to run a few errands that day. A few hours later she couldn’t get back into her small town of Clendenin, located right on the Elk River. She decided to head to a nearby hotel. Then, the bridge leading to the shopping center where it was located washed out. She spent the next two days in that hotel. Much of the region lacked power and employees at the nearby Kroger grocery store barbecued food out of the freezer cases for displaced residents.

When the waters receded and she was finally able to get back, she recalls every moment of that drive.

“Town was devastated,” she says, beginning to cry. “It was gray from the mud.”

She was one of the lucky ones. The waters got close, but they didn’t reach her house. Twenty-three people were killed by the 2016 floods, making it one of the deadliest on record. More than 1,500 homes and businesses were destroyed, and another 2,500 significantly damaged, while losses to highways and bridges totaled about $53 million.

Three-and-a-half-years later, the worst-hit communities are still rebuilding. The National Weather Service would later say the intensity and amount of rain that fell in late June 2016, was of a magnitude expected once in 1,000 years.

Scientists, some state lawmakers and even federal agencies are sounding the alarm that West Virginia’s once-in-a-millennia 2016 downpour that lead to catastrophic flooding is not an isolated event. The hydrologic system that humanity has relied on and built its infrastructure around is changing. The future will be both more intense and more variable.

But as communities rebuild, the state’s response to the climate challenge has been mixed, at best, raising questions about how prepared people will be for the next disaster. While some officials and planning documents do acknowledge the threat of climate change to West Virginia, a state office established after the 2016 flood to enhance resiliency has stalled.

“There’s a disconnect there,” scientist Nicolas Zegre said. An associate professor of forest hydrology at West Virginia University, Zegre studies the state’s water resources. He says too many officials are still avoiding talking about climate change.

“If we can’t even have conversations in Charleston about what climate change is, and that it’s happening,” he asked, “how can we have hazard mitigation designed in a way that meaningfully protects the public when climate change isn’t even part of that decision making?”

‘1,000-year downpour’

Flooding is not new in West Virginia. The Mountain State is one of the most flood-prone states in the country, largely because of the topography. Rain that falls on the state’s mountain peaks eventually runs down into the steep valleys, or hollows. West Virginia experiences both riverine flooding, when streams and rivers overflow their banks, and flash flooding.

In addition, many homes and businesses are near those flood-prone waterways, according to Brian Farkas. Farkas leads the West Virginia Conservation Agency, the administrative arm of the State Conservation Committee, which is charged with overseeing conservation efforts. He said West Virginia has one of the highest stream-to-land ratios on the North American continent. With flat land in short supply, he said much of the state’s development has occurred in the narrow valleys along creeks.

“Floodplains became a natural place for development,” he said. “That’s all well and good until you have a series of rain events, and you have streams that are just doing what streams are designed to do when there is a lot of water: They come out of their bank, they go to the floodplain.”

Brittany Patterson

In Rainelle, West Virginia some businesses never reopened after the 2016 floods.

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, there have been 2,302 flood events in West Virginia between January 1993 and July 2017, resulting in an estimated $1.8 billion in property damages and 103 deaths. Flood-producing extreme precipitation is the costliest and most severe natural hazard West Virginia faces.

But the event that began in late June 2016 was different. Torrential rain hammered southern West Virginia. In some places, more than 10 inches fell, much in just 12 to 18 hours.

In the first paragraph of the executive summary of a study conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, on lessons learned from the 2016 floods, the agency states that while many residents felt the flooding was as bad as it could get, that’s not true.

“In fact, this type of event could happen more frequently than previously thought,” it states.

Setbacks For Resilience

Following the 2016 floods, the West Virginia Legislature took proactive steps to address flood risk. It passed House Bill 2935, which created a joint legislative committee to address flooding and created a new state office dedicated to boosting resilience.

According to the bill, the stated goal of the newly-created State Resiliency Office was to coordinate “all economic and community resiliency planning and implementation efforts, including but not limited to flood protection programs and activities in the state.” That included updating the state’s flood protection plan “no less than biannually” and recommending legislation to reduce or mitigate flood damage.

In short, the State Resiliency Office and its board were supposed to be the state’s one-stop-shop for making communities better able to withstand catastrophic flooding.

Brittany Patterson

One of dozens of structures in Rainelle that has been abandoned and is awaiting demolition.

Today, the office is barely functional. It has one employee. State lawmakers are proposing new legislation to reshape its structure.

According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, despite having three meetings in 2017 to stand up the agency, in June 2018 the State Resiliency Office was told to disband further activities by the state Department of Commerce under which it is currently situated.

The West Virginia Department of Commerce did not make someone available to speak about the State Resiliency Office despite multiple interview requests.

Since then, Adjunct General James Hoyer, head of the West Virginia National Guard, and who was made head of the 2016 flooding recovery efforts in June 2018, said he has largely taken on the duties of the State Resiliency Office.

“I think that’s an important effort going forward,” he said. “But I think what we’ve got to start to look at is how do we build resiliency, not just from the standpoint of disaster, but economic resiliency, and pull all those things together and develop some plans going forward.”

When asked to what extent the Guard or other agencies working on flood recovery are factoring in climate change in building resiliency, Hoyer said it’s not something he’s thinking about.

“I would tell you as the guy in uniform, you know, my job’s not to get into those debates,” he said. “My job is to address the long term, you know, resiliency piece going forward.”

Missing Element

House Bill 2935 also created the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding. Members like Democratic state Sen. Stephen Baldwin, said the body has focused on the state’s botched flood recovery response efforts and not flood prevention as its charter states.

“You used the term climate change, and to my knowledge, that term has not been used ever in a joint flood committee,” he said.

The committee’s charter said it has a statutory obligation to consider how West Virginia can be better prepared in the face of future flooding by studying “flood damage reduction and floodplain management” as well as “flood protection.” In a September letter to the committee’s chairs, Baldwin and fellow Democratic Sen. Glenn Jeffries expressed concerns that the committee could be doing more on prevention. Baldwin said while he understands recovery is important, factoring in the future climate is important to lessening the impacts of flood disasters.

“The specific constitutional charge of the flood committee is flood prevention. I mean, it uses that terminology several times,” he added. “But, you know, from a very general 30,000-foot view, the committee has done no work on flood prevention so far.”

The co-chairs of the committee say they have been focused on getting people back into their homes after a scandal with the way nearly $150 million in federal disaster relief grants were being administered through the RISE program.

Republican state Sen. Chandler Swope is one of the chairs. Moving forward, he said he expects to focus more on prevention and pointed to recent presentations made to the committee from a firm familiar with disaster recovery in Puerto Rico. When asked specifically if climate change is being incorporated into the committee’s prevention efforts, Swope said the body is not planning for a specific future, but said any resilience work being done in the state will help.

“But climate change has been happening for millions of years and it’s going to continue to change and you just have to deal with it,” he said.

The state doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to implementing its own recommendations to reduce flooding. In 2001 after another historic flood, a panel came together and developed a set of comprehensive recommendations to reduce the damage from flooding. As reported by The Charleston Gazette-Mail, the report sat on the shelf collecting dust.

The state’s Hazard Mitigation Plan updated in 2018 does explicitly mention the threats West Virginia faces from a changing climate, including the impact of intense rainfall events.

“If climate change has an effect on those things over a period of time, if we’re trending towards a dryer or it’s going to be wetter, then those are factors we considered in the mitigation plan,” said Lonnie Bryson, recovery grants section chief for the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “So we can mitigate the things we’re aware of. But 2016 was just such a magnitude that there’s no predicting that.”

Scientists, like Nicolas Zegre at WVU, said it’s true that researchers cannot be certain about future natural disasters, and they can’t say when a precipitation event like 2016 will happen again.

But they say the models are clear, and more intense precipitation events are expected.

“Nothing is going to be meaningful unless we have honest conversations about climate change and what it means for West Virginia,” he said.

For homeowners, some resilience is being incorporated in the rebuilding efforts that have occurred since the 2016 floods, largely driven by federal standards.

Federal Backstop

On a recent drive through Rainelle, the neighborhoods do look markedly different than they did just a few years ago. Spray painted X’s mark homes now abandoned that will eventually be torn down. Most of those that have been rebuilt are obvious — they tower 8 to 12 feet above their neighbors. That’s intentional.

Much of the rebuilding following the 2016 floods is being done with federal money. A presidential disaster declaration unlocked millions of dollars in federal aid from both FEMA and Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. In recent years both agencies have adopted stipulations for federal disaster aid grants that ensure homes damaged by natural disasters are rebuilt to be more resilient for the next one.

Brittany Patterson

Homes rebuilt in the floodplain are being elevated.

According to a FEMA spokesperson, homes that are reconstructed using Hazard Mitigation Grant program dollars are built two feet above the required base flood elevation, or 100-year floodplain, in West Virginia.

But the Trump administration in 2016 also rescinded an Obama-era executive order that tasked agencies to incorporate climate change into proposed infrastructure projects. FEMA had been soliciting input and drafting new rules.

Carolyn Kousky is executive director of the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, which for 35 years has studied disaster risk management. She said the order would have created uniform guidance on rebuilding and incorporating changing flood conditions due to climate change. As it stands, states and municipalities largely set the tone for how climate change is incorporated into rebuilding homes and infrastructure.

“I think a lot of it is left up to what local governments choose to do,“ she said. “Smaller and less affluent communities might not have the resources or the expertise.”

Improving Data

In the aftermath of the 2016 floods, FEMA put out a press release that said West Virginia is more resilient and better prepared. The agency funded new maps in eight of the areas hardest hit by flooding in June 2016, a spokesperson said.

The agency also invested in a digital flood mapping tool, one of the first in the country to cover an entire state. The WV Flood Tool has been in production since 2007, but investment after the 2016 floods allowed project developers to expand the project to provide communities with a detailed picture of flood risk and landslide risk.

Eric Douglas/WVPB

Three-and-a-half years later, Clendenin, West Virginia has largely recovered from the deadly 2016 floods although some homes still need to be rebuilt or torn down.

Under the “risk” tab, users can not only see their flood risk per FEMA’s 100-year floodplain maps, but, if available, FEMA’s updated flood maps. All critical infrastructure — hospitals, schools, utilities — are mapped on the tool to the 500-year floodplain.

“We’re going to be able to identify the risk, or be able to map that in detail like it’s never been done before statewide,” said Kurt Donaldson, manager of the WV GIS Technical Center at West Virginia University and project manager for the flood tool.

He said advances in technology in the last decade have made creating a centralized flood risk tool possible, but he also said the project only focuses on riverine flooding and landslide risk and can only input data it has available, and much of that data doesn’t take into consideration future climate change.

Relying on FEMA floodplain maps to assess flood risk is problematic because the maps were created to serve the agency’s insurance program, said Larry Larson, director emeritus and senior policy adviser for the National Association of State Floodplain Managers. The maps notoriously don’t cover all flood risk.

“It has become the flood risk standard, and that’s unfortunate, but that’s how people perceive it,” he said.

In West Virginia, most counties have adopted a “model floodplain ordinance” that goes beyond FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program minimum guidelines. As a result, in most places new structures built in the floodplain to be raised an additional two feet above the 100-year floodplain.

Ray Perry, the floodplain manager for Logan County and head of the West Virginia Floodplain Managers Association, said the requirement is helpful to create a buffer against flooding but he would like to see the state go further and create a similar model ordinance for building codes.

“If you’re one of the people that the floodplain ordinance doesn’t necessarily apply to you because you’re not in a floodplain, you can’t enforce it on somebody,” he said. “Without the building code, then you’re just doomed to repeat it over and over.”

New Attitude

Inside John Wyatt’s music and craft shop in downtown Rainelle guitars and banjos line the walls. He says more than three years after the flooding most of the renovations are complete and he hopes to open the store to the public soon.

Brittany Patterson

John Wyatt poses for a photo in his music and craft shop in Rainelle, WV.

Reminders of the flood still remain. Across the street an Exxon gas station is empty, the cost of Supreme $2.99 in perpetuity. Next door, a sign advertises an auction for the Rainelle Motor Lodge. The motel was abandoned after the flood.

Newly-elected Ranielle Mayor Jason Smith said the 2016 flood has been tough economically for the town. Asked if he thought Rainelle was better prepared now for a disaster of that magnitude, he said he hopes so.

“But you know, we don’t have a crystal ball to look in and know what’s going to happen in the future,” he said. “We’re working on some issues with that to try to help the flood control in town. It’s a long process, and we hope that we can work all together and make that happen, but at the same time, you know, things like this just take time.”

Wyatt is now a city council member in Ranielle. He and others are thinking about the future of this coal turned timber town that has been struggling in recent decades. The community is raising money to build a community center and he hopes Rainelle can become a destination for tourists traveling the scenic Midland Trail. He said while the town is still struggling — dozens of structures still need to be torn down, for example — the flooding also changed his thinking about the place he’s lived much of life.

“Maybe the most important new construction has been the attitude of the people because they’re beginning to see Rainelle as a town that can survive, that’s not going to die, that does have hope for the future,” he said.

This story was produced in partnership with InsideClimate News, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that covers climate, energy and the environment. Caught Off Guard was produced as part of ICN’s National Environmental News Network.

Kentucky Leads The Country In 2020 Coal Retirements Tuesday, Jan 21 2020 

Two of the largest coal-fired power plant retirements in the U.S. in 2020 are happening in Kentucky.

The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Paradise Unit 3 near Drakesboro is scheduled to shutter this December while Owensboro’s Elmer Smith Generating Station will cease operations in June.

These older, more inefficient power plants are the latest to be priced out of the market, and are now trudging toward the elephant graveyard of legacy coal-fired plants in the Ohio Valley.

Together, power generation from the two plants represents more than a quarter of the total coal-fired capacity set to retire this year, based on an analysis using U.S. Energy Information Administration data.

“Basically what you hear from the experts in the field is there is not going to be another coal plant built in Kentucky or anywhere else, probably… forever,” said Andrew Melnykovych, spokesman for Kentucky Public Service Commission, the state’s utility regulator.

Sales of electricity in Kentucky have declined over the last decade, mostly due to a loss in large industrial customers, and future increases are expected to be offset as people use less energy overall due to energy efficiency improvements (LED lightbulbs, Energy Star appliances etc.), according to EIA data.

So new power generation is likely to come online as older plants retire and as customers begin demanding cleaner sources of energy.

“You’re starting to see customers, you know big commercial and industrial customers, who are saying ‘OK, we’re in your service territory but we want renewable power,’” Melnykovych said.

The Future of Coal And Natural Gas

Coal power has long been a staple of the Ohio Valley. The Appalachian Basin provided the coal and the Ohio River supplied the water. Together, they’ve spun the steam turbines that have powered an era’s worth of industry.

But for the most part, the efficiency of legacy plants are locked into the time they were built.

“There’s also a certain point where coal-fired units tend to reach the end of their viability, as far as their age, and it doesn’t make sense to invest more money into units,” said Scott Brooks, TVA spokesman, about the Paradise Fossil Plant.

To look at it another way, it can take a legacy coal plant 24 hours to begin generating power while a combined cycle natural gas plant goes from 0 to 100 within minutes.

TVA’s Paradise Fossil Plant is one such example. Unit 3 just doesn’t have the flexibility to power up when the extra energy capacity is needed, and it’s not worth investing in, Brooks said. The utility has already made up for the coal plant’s power generation by the addition of a 1,025 megawatt combined cycle gas plant that TVA built in 2017 at the same site.

Across the state, most of the coal generation that’s retired has been replaced by natural gas.

In 2008, 94 percent of Kentucky’s electricity came from coal. Today, that’s closer to about 75 percent, according to EIA data. Meanwhile, the use of natural gas for power generation has exploded, from about 1 percent to 18 percent of the state’s energy mix from 2008 to 2018.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean coal’s days are numbered either. Minus the two plants retiring this year, there are still 12 coal-fired power plants in Kentucky and utilities are incentivized to get a healthy return on their investments before putting them out to pasture.

Louisville Gas and Electric for example, has said its four coal-fired power plants have remaining lifespans of about 30 years.

Last summer, the former head of Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet predicted that coal plant retirements would slow in the coming years.

“Coal-fired plants that exist in Kentucky are fairly modern vintage so I think we should level out and not have many future retirements for many years in Kentucky,” said former Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Charles Snavely.

The longer those coal and natural gas power plants operate, the more carbon is released into the atmosphere, the bigger risk we take. The consensus of the scientific community is that humans must reduce carbon emissions as quickly as possible in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Solar Picking Up Steam In Kentucky

Growth in new solar and wind energy generation is expected to outpace natural gas this year across the country, but not in Kentucky.

No new large-scale solar projects are expected to come online this year, according to the EIA, but the pace is expected to pick up in the coming years. A company called BayWa r.e. Solar Projects is planning an 80 megawatts solar field in Harrison County for 2021, according to the EIA.

Following the closure of the Elmer Smith Station, Owensboro will continue to purchase coal power from Big Rivers through 2026, but it’s also approved a separate agreement to purchase 32 megawatts of solar power from an array in Western Kentucky that’s set to open in 2022.

Meanwhile, Henderson, Kentucky, has been reviewing more than two dozen proposals to energize its city with up to 150 megawatts of solar power. The city’s utility manager hopes to award a contract early this year and complete construction by 2023.

Kentucky’s Public Service Commission has also seen more interest in utility-scale solar.

“I think there is likelihood that we will see some fairly substantial solar projects coming to the state in the next five years or so,” said Melnykovych, with the Public Service Commission.

Melnykovych thinks much of that solar will be built by business owners competing with utilities in regional energy markets.

The future of distributed solar, also known as rooftop solar, largely depends upon how the Public Service Commission decides to value net metering credits in utility-filed rate cases that can begin going before the commission this year.

Kentucky Convent Cutting Carbon To Fight Climate Change Friday, Jan 10 2020 

A convent of Roman Catholic sisters living near Bardstown, Kentucky have dedicated their lives to charity for the last 200 years. During the Civil War, they nursed wounded soldiers. During the HIV epidemic of the 1980s, they opened the first nursing home in Kentucky for AIDS patients.

Three years ago the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth made a new commitment: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2037 at their ministries in Kentucky and Belize.

Their goal is in line with recommendations from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which says mankind must act now to reduce and offset carbon emissions in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth ministry near Bardstown, Kentucky on January 7, 2020.

The IPCC report finds that reaching net-zero emissions by 2040 would significantly limit warming temperatures. So why did the sisters choose 2037?

“It’s a little more aggressive because the sisters realize not everyone is able to do that. So part of what they are doing is trying to make up for what other people are not able to do,” said Caroline Cromer, sustainability director.

The sisters live on a sprawling 370-acre property in Nazareth, Kentucky. Founded by Catherine Spalding — you know, of Spalding University — and Bishop John Baptist David in 1812, the diocese focused on providing religious education to Catholic families.

When the convent first opened, the sisters used to travel by train. Now they have three charging stations for electric vehicles. Dormitories that once served a college on the campus have become housing for low-income seniors and people with disabilities.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth ministry near Bardstown, Kentucky on January 7, 2020.

Their mission, too, has evolved, said Sister Susan Gatz.

Old-school Catholic doctrine said God gave people the earth, and that humans have “dominion” over it. These days the sisters focus on how everything on earth is interconnected. The sisters see themselves as stewards of God’s creation, and sustainability is part of that mission, Gatz said.

“As we continue to degrade the air, the water, the land, we ourselves are going to suffer because we are a part of this. We are not over it. So I think shifting that thinking is a huge task for humanity right now,” she said.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

Sister Susan Gatz at the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth ministry near Bardstown, Kentucky on January 7, 2020.

Across the property, the sisters have begun planting native trees to increase shade and offset the urban heat island effect. They’ve planted pollinator plant species and released Monarch butterflies, whose populations are declining. They’re cutting back on mowing to increase habitat for Kentucky critters, and all the lawn care that remains is done with electric equipment.

On the roof of one building, just across from the spires of the church, the sisters have installed about  140 solar panels — one of two installations on the property.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth ministry near Bardstown, Kentucky on January 7, 2020.

This year the sisters are calculating ways to offset their carbon footprint for air travel. And by the year 2047, they plan for all of their ministries to be carbon free, in the U.S., Belize, India, Nepal and Botswana, Africa.

“For us it’s a spiritual reality because of our relationship with the earth, because of the holiness of creation, because of our relationship to the creator,” Gatz said.

The sisters manage a community garden and have begun incorporating the produce into their meals: cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers and squash, among others. They even compost, and have their own rainwater collection system.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

A community garden at the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth ministry near Bardstown, Kentucky on January 7, 2020.

Recently, the sisters adopted “Meatless Mondays” to lessen their carbon footprint from resource-intensive agriculture. Not all the changes are easy, especially when you’ve grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle.

Sister Evelyn Hurley is going to be 105 years old in March. She’s willing to put up with Meatless Mondays, but she didn’t seem all that thrilled about it.

“I mean I know it’s very important to take care of the earth. I know that. I’m fully aware of that,” Hurley said. “But of course I’m so much older too. I think all these young people have all these other ideas, but well, I’ll go along with anything that’s decided.”

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth ministry near Bardstown, Kentucky on January 7, 2020.

Rising Waters: Aging Levees, Climate Change And The Challenge To Hold Back The Ohio River Thursday, Dec 19 2019 

When 78-year-old Jim Casto looks at the towering floodwalls that line downtown Huntington, West Virginia, he sees a dark history of generations past.

The longtime journalist and local historian is short in stature, yet tall in neighborhood tales. On Casto’s hand shines a solid gold ring, signifying his more than 40 years of reporting at the local paper. “It was a lot cheaper to give me a ring than to give me a pay raise,” he said with a chuckle.

He walks up to the entrance of Harris Riverfront Park, one of 21 gate openings in the more than 3.5 miles of floodwalls covered in decades of charcoal-colored grime and dirt.

The river has shaped the city, providing the transportation for coal, steel and chemical products. But Casto also knows the river has the power to destroy, as it did before the omnipresent walls were there.

Casto published a photobook on the most destructive flood the Ohio River Valley has seen.

“January of 1937 was exceptionally warm. And that meant that the snow on the hillsides melted much earlier than usual and faster than usual. Then, there were 19 consecutive days of rain,” Casto said.

Huntington District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo of Fourth Avenue in Huntington, West Virginia, during the 1937 flood.

He points to the number 69 near the top of a decorative gauge marking river heights.

“That is the ’37 flood,” he said. The river rose to nearly 20 feet above flood stage — more than 69 feet high.

Thousands of Huntington residents were forced from their homes. The county courthouse became a virtual port for rescue boats.

“As Time magazine in ’37 described it: ‘Hell and High Water,’” Casto said.

Ohio River communities from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, were inundated. About a million people were left homeless; 385 people were killed; and the flood, adjusted for current inflation, caused an estimated $9.12 billion in damages.

In the wake of the disaster, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took on a mammoth effort to construct hundreds of miles of levees, floodwalls and numerous pump stations to keep back rising water. Those defenses are now, on average, nearly 60 years old. Huntington’s system was built in 1943, one of the oldest in the basin.

That advanced age worries local officials from several Ohio Valley towns who look after these defenses, plagued by rust, antiquated designs, archaic pump engines and, in some places, sinkholes. They say funding is scarce to upgrade World War II-era safeguards that protect $120.7 billion in property and about 720,000 people throughout the Ohio River basin.

Huntington is one of a dozen levee systems in the basin that the Corps of Engineers classifies as a “high risk” due to the combination of aging infrastructure and the people and property that would be harmed if the system were to fail. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates aging levee systems like these across the country will need $80 billion in upgrades within the next decade.

The challenge is made greater by the growing menace of climate change. A warmer, wetter climate could intensify the severity and frequency of flooding and send up to 50% more water flowing through Ohio Valley waterways within this century.

Liam Niemeyer

Mike Pemberton (left, bottom) shows a dated sensor that uses mercury in Pump Station Number Six in Ironton, Ohio.

Aging Protection

With the twist of a cold handle, a heavy, metal door creaks open, the sound echoing throughout the cavernous Pump Station Number Six on the west side of Ironton, Ohio, along the Ohio River.

“Like going into the Frankenstein laboratory, wasn’t it?” said Mike Pemberton, who’s managed flood defense for decades in the city of more than 10,000 people, a half-hour downstream from Huntington. Four gigantic red pumps protrude 10 feet from the ground below a raised platform, where large, green electrical switchboards from the 1940s take up most of the space.

Pemberton motions to a sensor with a weighted pulley that uses mercury to tell how much water is being pumped during high water; modern equipment, on the other hand, would be computerized. He said it’s fairly reliable, but sometimes the mercury container collects a film of carbon material that he shakes off.

“Slap the side of it, and sometimes that’ll clean the carbon off the mercury,” Pemberton said.

Ironton’s flood defense system of pump stations, levees and floodwalls were also built in the 1940s, much like in Huntington. The sensor is something he can see and more easily maintain. Yet some things remain outside his experienced sight, including the more than half-century-old pipes that run through the station and the sluice gates that seal water from flooding the station itself.

“We don’t know the condition of the inside of that pipe. We don’t know if that gate could have a stress crack in it,” Pemberton said. “That’s some of the things I kind of worry about.”

Pemberton’s maintenance worries extend far beyond to nine other archaic pump stations, almost four miles of earthen levee and over another mile of floodwall. He said a local tax levy that generates about $260,000 a year for his department mostly funds salaries for three employees and daily maintenance on the flood protection system. That includes tasks such as mowing the grass on top of levees and greasing pump motors.

Ironton voted in 2014 to double the tax levy. Pemberton campaigned for the measure by hanging signs marking the 1937 flood level throughout the city’s historic downtown, reaching the second floor of many buildings.

Ironton City Council also passed an ordinance in 2018 that created a monthly $5 flood protection fee tacked onto utility bills. That revenue goes into a Flood Improvement Fund that had a little more than $200,000 as of late November, according to the city’s finance director. Ironton’s per capita income is about $20,000 and the city’s poverty rate hovers at 20%, but the city didn’t have many other options.

“To nobody’s knowledge was there anywhere, any kind of money available to go after that would meet the kind of needs, and there was an immediate need,” said Jim Tordiff, the former Ironton councilman who drafted the ordinance. “It had gone on too long and couldn’t be ignored.”

But Pemberton said even with the extra local funding, the glaring, long-term problems still pile up.

Pump Station Five, directly along the banks of the Ohio, is the first station that’s turned on when high waters hit Ironton. Pump engines have caught fire over the decades and, a few years ago, Pemberton said, the electrical switchgear controlling the station’s pumps also went up in flames. He said his department was only able to afford the $198,000 switchgear repair cost because of a city insurance payment.

But he can’t rely on insurance for the future, he said, as all of his stations have the same outdated switchgears that could fail. He estimates each station would cost around the same amount to receive an upgrade — money he and other Ohio River communities in similar situations struggle to find.

“You can imagine the maintenance and repairs and the parts and pieces that it would take and the cost it would take to keep a 1940 car on the road today,” said Sherry Wilkins, director of the Huntington Stormwater Utility. “That’s kind of what we’re dealing with here, we’re dealing with an 80-year-old system.”

Wilkins said Huntington encounters a lot of the type of problems with an aging system that Pemberton described in Ironton.

Liam Niemeyer

Stan Wonnell (left), floodwall coordinator for the Huntington Stormwater Utility, and Sherry Wilkins, director of the utility.

The flood defense employees she manages often have to hunt across the country for pump station replacement parts, like leather straps or metal brackets, or pay extra to get custom parts made, simply because the parts for the World War II-era equipment aren’t manufactured anymore.

“Our floodwall has a 50-year design life,” Wilkins said, meaning that obscure replacement parts must be custom-made and can cost thousands of dollars. “The average person wouldn’t think of that, ‘Wow, does it really cost $20,000 to repair a pump?’ So, currently we don’t have the money to do those kinds of things continually.”

Wilkins said grant funding is tight because of competition with dozens of other municipalities in need. And in older cities, other aging infrastructure issues may be a higher priority when it comes to applying for grants.

If there were a flood that damaged Huntington’s downtown floodwall, the Corps of Engineers would not help the city pay for repairs.

The federal government fully funds repairs to a system after a disaster through the Rehabilitation and Inspection Program, but only if the system meets basic inspection requirements. The Corps of Engineers inspects flood defense systems annually on physical flaws and administrative practices, such as whether cities practice routine floodwall gate closures.

If the inspection is considered at least “minimally acceptable,” the Corps will cover damage from a disaster.

The reason Huntington’s downtown floodwall does not qualify? A sinkhole, almost the size of a car, threatens to swallow up ground near the city’s 11th Street Pump Station.

“It’s not just Huntington, it’s every single floodwall that was built in the 1930s, 1940s. It is not a luxury. It is a necessity,” Wilkins said. “It’s a problem nationwide.”

With scientists predicting warmer temperatures and more frequent flooding due to climate change, the urgency is growing to address aging infrastructure.

Warmer, Wetter Future

Huntington as warm as Los Angeles. Cincinnati as hot as Atlanta: Those are just some of the predicted temperature rises in the Ohio River basin in the coming century, according to a 2017 report studying the effects of climate change. The Army Corps, the National Weather Service, regional universities and other federal and state partners worked on the study.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

Jim Noel is a service coordination hydrologist with the National Weather Service Ohio River Forecast Center and one of the authors of the study. He said the higher temperatures predicted in the study tend to increase the amount of water evaporation, which not only could mean more rainfall but also increase the frequency and severity of floods and droughts throughout the basin.

Already, several cities in the region saw record rainfall in 2018. Cincinnati saw its third wettest year, and Charleston, Pittsburgh, Columbus and Louisville all saw their wettest year ever.

Some levee systems in parts of the Ohio River basin — including Huntington and Ironton —  could see an average annual river streamflow increase of 25% to 35% by 2099. That increases the chance of another flood on the scale of the historic one in 1937.

Noel said the Ohio River basin today has several extra protections beyond the floodwalls and levees, such as dams and reservoirs along tributary rivers, that help control water levels before they reach levee systems.

“The 1937 flood happened before most of the flood control projects in the Ohio basin,” Noel said. “Therefore, for example, like if you look at Cincinnati, Ohio, or Louisville, Kentucky, those kind of cities, if 1937 were to exactly repeat itself, the crest on the Ohio River would be some 8 to 10 feet lower in many locations because of the great ability of the Army Corps of Engineers to regulate that flow in that water through their flood control projects.”

And the height of some older floodwalls and levees could already be capable of handling higher waters, according to Kate White who led the 2017 Corps study.

Margaret Bourke-White photographed flood victims in Louisville, Kentucky, awaiting relief supplies — an iconic image of the 1937 Ohio River flood.

White said levee projects created in the 1940s often estimated how high to build their levees using what’s called the freeboard method. Past engineers would calculate how high potential floods could be from historical records and then add a few feet on top of that height as a buffer. While newer levees have a more modern analysis for calculating the right flood protection height, she said the old method still offers relatively robust protection.

“I just think there are older things that are still perfectly fine if they’ve been maintained and looked after,” White said.

Flood protection managers including Pemberton, Wilkins and others along the Ohio River generally agree that stationary floodwalls and earthen levees are relatively solid compared to the moving parts of pump station equipment.

Army Corps Huntington District Levee Safety Program Manager John Ferguson said he expects all the levee systems in the upper Ohio Valley to perform as expected. But the increasing age is still a question.

“Maybe the general consensus on most of these projects is a 50-year design life, but again, that’s not a hard or fast rule that really means anything,” Ferguson said. “And yes, that just proves that it’s aging infrastructure like everything else in the country. We just got to take care of it and make sure we maintain it.”

Army Corps officials like Ferguson are relying on a system called Levee Safety Action Classification to help prioritize which aging levee systems carry more risk. A levee gets a risk classification based on its condition and the people and property it protects.

Twelve levee systems in the Ohio River basin have a “high” risk classification, including in Huntington, Louisville and systems protecting cities as small as Brookport, Illinois. This classification calls on officials to increase the “frequency of levee monitoring” and ensure the “community is aware of flood warning and evacuation procedures.”

The risk surrounding aging levees was a prominent topic at a Huntington meeting in November among several local levee project managers. Corps officials, including Ferguson, recommended that managers join forces to be a louder voice for federal funding.

“It’s a completely different story if you have every project, from Parkersburg to Maysville, that raises their hand and says, ‘Hey, we’ve got aging infrastructure,’” Ferguson said. “If there’s a lot of ‘squeaky wheels,’ it gets a lot of grease.”

Pemberton in Ironton said there was once an association of regional floodwall managers who advocated for infrastructure improvements, but that group dissolved in the early 2000s. He isn’t sure what future flooding from climate change will look like, but he said he believes banding flood defense managers together will help alleviate some of the uncertainty.

And when Pemberton hears about climate change from local meteorologists, the nagging worries he has for the future only continue to dog him.

“‘What if’ I guess [are] the two big words. ‘What if?’”

Liam Niemeyer, a reporter for Ohio Valley ReSource, authored this story. He can be reached at lniemeyer1@murraystate.edu.

Good River: Stories of the Ohio is a series about the environment, economy and culture of the Ohio River watershed, produced by seven nonprofit newsrooms. To see more, please visit ohiowatershed.org.

Colder weather has a direct correlation to climate change Wednesday, Nov 20 2019 

By Ben Goldberger —

Temperatures as low as 19 degrees Fahrenheit hit Louisville Nov. 11, officially making it colder on campus than many parts of Antarctica. Even though Antarctica is currently in summer, it is concerning that during fall, students are feeling the same temperatures as the coldest continent on Earth. 

This brings up the conversation about climate change and how to urgently address this issue.

“We need to act now and do something different,” Assistant Provost of Sustainability at the University of Louisville Justin Mog said about climate change

When most people think of global warming, they purely focus on the “warming” part, but an equally important part of the discussion is the increase in harsh, cold weather. 

A study conducted by “Nature Geoscience” found that colder temperatures in the United States are caused by unnaturally warm temperatures in the Arctic. When talking about violently cold weather events in North America, the researchers said, “These events have been linked to anomalous Arctic warming since 1990, and may affect terrestrial processes.”

This explains why it was colder in Louisville than many places in Antarctica, but climate change will not just bring extremely cold weather. It will cause harm to the Earth’s ecosystem as a whole. 

If the human race does not change its actions in favor of limiting its carbon footprint, the Earth will never be the same. Anna Michalak, a researcher at the Carnegie Institute of Science, expanded on this when she told National Geographic “Winters could be harsher; flooding is more intense; droughts are more frequent.”

“By emitting greenhouse gasses, we’re not just warming temperatures, we’re perturbing the Earth’s entire system,” she said.

While the effects of climate change are scary to think about, the actions people can take to increase their personal sustainability are not. 

The U of L Sustainability Program has a list of “Green Tips” to live a more sustainable lifestyle on their website. Some of these tips include things as simple as turning off all the lights when leaving the room, unplugging electronics such as coffee machines or chargers when not in use and turning the air conditioning/heat unit off when not in the room. 

There are rewards set in place by the university to promote these sustainable actions. An example of this is that students and staff get a 10 cent discount when using a reusable cup for their drinks at the SAC Marketplace, Twisted Taco, the SRC Cafe, Starbucks and any P.O.D. store on campus. Customers also will receive half-priced drinks at McAllister’s if they use the official McAllister’s reusable cup. 

Climate change is a scarily prevalent issue that society has to address head-on to keep our planet healthy. There are many easy ways to do this, most not even taking a minute to do. Incorporating these actions into your everyday routine will not only lead to a healthier planet but a healthier lifestyle as well. 

File Graphic // The Louisville Cardinal

The post Colder weather has a direct correlation to climate change appeared first on The Louisville Cardinal.

Disastrous Disconnect: Coal, Climate And Catastrophe In Kentucky Monday, Oct 28 2019 

This story is part of a series about the insufficient protections for vulnerable people as natural disasters worsen in a warming climate. The Center for Public Integrity and four partners – the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, High Country News, Ohio Valley ReSource and StateImpact Oklahoma – are contributing stories.

REGINA, Ky. — Todd Bentley stepped onto his porch and saw the storm swelling the creek near his home. If this kept up all night, he feared, the creek could overflow its banks and wash out his neighborhood’s road. He headed out into the rain with his teenage son to secure his mother’s trailer across the street.

In minutes — before they could finish — they were up to their waists in floodwater. They had to clamber into the hills to escape. There they crouched for hours in their family cemetery, lightning striking around them, the water below them carrying cars, ripping up pavement and lifting homes off foundations.

“He started crying on me, it was happening so fast, and I, literally, I shook him,” Bentley recalled. “I said, ‘Son, listen. We’re fighting for our lives now — you’ve got to keep it together.’”

Sydney Boles

Todd Bentley stands in his family cemetery in Harless Creek in June, recalling the night of the 2010 flood. Bentley spent the night here with his teenage son when the creek swelled too high to cross safely.

Nine years after they survived the flood, storms fill Bentley with dread. He watches the creek. He paces.

What if it happens again?

Flash floods have troubled Kentucky for decades. Now, extreme rainstorms are worsening with climate change, increasing the odds of more disasters like the one Bentley’s community endured. For Kentucky’s poorest residents, the people living in flood-prone hollows with surface mines nearby, that means an ever-present threat to both life and hard-won possessions.

But the state isn’t on the front lines of the fight against global warming. Its leaders, concerned about the impact on coal, have positioned themselves on the other side of that battle.

That’s created a dangerous and expensive disconnect — and not just in Kentucky, a Center for Public Integrity analysis shows.

Nine of the 10 states that emit the most heat-trapping carbon dioxide pollution per person helped block the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which would have been the largest effort by the U.S. government to limit climate change. Four of those states, including Kentucky, were among those most often hit by disasters in the past 10 years — generally powerful storms, which science shows are worsening as the planet warms.

CPI

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it sent nearly $2 billion in taxpayer aid to those four states over the same period to clean up and prepare for future hits. That accounts for two of FEMA’s major programs, just part of the disaster aid flowing to states.

Kentucky alone received more than $530 million from 2009 to 2018. Severe storms and floods accounted for most of its 16 federally declared major disasters. Half of those battered Pike County, home to a quarter of the state’s active coal mines in 2018 and to Bentley’s neighborhood.

The choices that state leaders make now will have life-changing consequences for generations, experts warn. Michael Hendryx, a public health professor at Indiana University Bloomington who studies environmental justice, said he wonders whether officials promoting inaction truly think global warming is not an emergency or are simply making a cynical bet that they won’t be harmed.

“They’ll be the people who have the money and power to defend themselves as climate change gets worse,” he said. “If we don’t do something really powerful and really meaningful soon, then the people who live in vulnerable areas … will suffer the most.”

In some parts of Kentucky, residents say they believe the state’s treatment of coal has increased the risk of disasters in yet another way. Consider the Harless Creek flood that threatened Bentley’s life. Water rushing down the hills from mines — including one the state had allowed to operate on an expired permit — intensified damage from the pounding rain, according to an engineering study prepared for a lawsuit. Afterward, the state cited two companies for violating laws intended to protect people living nearby.

The Kentucky governor’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. John Mura, a spokesman for the state’s mine regulator, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, wrote in an email that the agency concluded the mines above Harless Creek did not contribute to flood damage. But both the agency and the companies settled lawsuits filed by people living along the creek.

The state now has a system in place to prevent companies from mining with expired permits, Mura wrote.

“The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet has worked with mining companies to increase safety practices while it has been extremely diligent in holding permit holders accountable to their permit obligations,” he wrote.

Harless Creek was one of at least three cases in Kentucky in which engineering studies found that inappropriately operated or cleaned-up mines worsened flood damage, said Jack Spadaro, a former federal mine regulator who served as an expert witness for plaintiffs in lawsuits about those incidents. The floods collectively killed at least one person and destroyed the homes or belongings of more than 250 residents, according to news reports.

But the problem is far more widespread than just those three cases, Spadaro said. And the areas around mines tend to be poor, making recovery much harder for the people living there.

“When they lose their house,” he said, “they lose everything.”

‘Misguided reasons’

In September, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin stepped up to the lectern in a historic downtown Louisville hotel to deliver the keynote speech at an energy conference for leaders from southern states.

Days before, dozens of countries and businesses committed to swift action to stem the climate crisis by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Demonstrators turned out in cities around the world, including Louisville, to demand that elected officials do better. But at the Louisville conference, sponsored by oil, gas, coal and electric-utility interests, speakers suggested that the causes of global warming are uncertain. Bevin called people pushing for climate action irrational. His message: Leave fossil fuels alone.

“We are prematurely abandoning our [fossil fuel] assets for what I feel — and I think it’s probably shared by others — may be misguided reasons,” said Bevin, a Republican whose state is the country’s fifth-largest coal producer.

In fact, the science is clear: What’s happening to the planet is different from the natural variability of past eras, when Earth gradually warmed and cooled as its orbit shifted. The world has never in recorded history been so warm, or warmed this fast, U.S. and international research shows. Most of that change occurred in the past 35 years, triggered by decades of heat-trapping, man-made emissions, the federal government says. Burning fossil fuels such as coal is the primary cause, according to decades of scientific studies.

For two decades now, temperatures in the state have risen.

Scientists say the consequences include more heavy downpours. Kentucky storms dumping at least 2 inches of rain over a 24-hour period — storms that pose a flood risk — have increased 20 percent since the early 20th century, said Kenneth Kunkel, lead scientist for technical support for the federal government’s National Climate Assessment.

“We see very strong evidence for extreme rainfall increases across the eastern U.S.,” he said.

Kentucky disasters often hurt poorer areas. For example, more than half the counties hit by federally declared major disasters from 2009 to 2018 had larger shares of households receiving federal food aid than the state overall.

Amateur video of the Harless Creek flooding in June, 2010

That’s a common problem nationwide, one the federal disaster relief system doesn’t effectively address, said Craig Fugate, a former FEMA administrator. Congress didn’t set up FEMA to account for inequalities that precede disasters, such as homelessness and poverty, he said.

“The system was built for the middle income,” Fugate said. “If you’re poor, the system is not designed to make you whole.”

In Kentucky, Bevin’s administration is basing its preparations for disasters on climate science, even as he casts doubt on it. A 2018 state flood risk assessment, citing a 2017 federal study about climate effects in the region, warns that flooding events are likely to become more frequent and severe.

At the same time, the state continues to push for the status quo on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In September, Bevin intervened in court to support the Trump administration’s “pro-coal” replacement to Obama’s climate rule — a substitute that projections by the independent research group Resources for the Future suggest would reduce U.S. climate-warming emissions just one-tenth of a percent by 2050.

Bevin is up for re-election Nov. 5. His opponent, Democrat Andy Beshear, acknowledges climate change is happening but also pushed for the demise of the Clean Power Plan — a rule put in place by the Obama administration — and has supported its replacement.

Planning for climate-worsened disasters, as Kentucky is doing, can save money and lives. Flooding is already the state’s “most frequent and costly natural hazard,” killing 41 people over a recent 11-year period and causing an average of $40 million in annual losses, according to the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management.

But simply planning won’t be enough, experts caution.

It will be impossible to protect people and infrastructure from climate change in the long term without also reining in — what scientists call mitigating — heat-trapping emissions, said Lynne Carter, a Louisiana State University adjunct professor.

“Right now, we’re … incrementally coping. We’re not even coping very well,” said Carter, a co-author of the most recent National Climate Assessment, released by the Trump administration. “If we don’t do any mitigation, the problem is going to just keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Kentucky isn’t the only state preparing for the very climate disasters its policies help fuel.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Democrat-turned-Republican, leads a state that emits more carbon dioxide per person than all but two others; he says he doubts the science that man-made fossil fuel emissions are warming the planet.

Meanwhile, his emergency managers are planning for a future of more rain and landslides triggered by climate change.

In Nebraska, the state with the ninth-highest carbon dioxide emissions per person, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration has questioned whether climate science is settled while relying on a hazard mitigation plan calling climate change “an increasingly important factor” in local risks.

Like the Kentucky governor’s office, Bevin’s campaign spokespeople did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A spokesman for Beshear, Bevin’s challenger and Kentucky’s attorney general, wrote in an email that all energy sources are needed to address the planet’s warming — he did not say how that would lower greenhouse gases — and the right strategy would provide jobs for Kentuckians.

“Mining plays an important role supporting Eastern and Western Kentucky families,” Sam Newton, the Beshear campaign spokesman, wrote in an email. “Andy is on Team Kentucky, which means he’ll fight policies that hurt Kentucky families and work with anyone to help Kentucky families.”

The offices of the West Virginia and Nebraska governors didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

There’s a cost to ignoring climate science. U.S. taxpayers already have begun paying it.

Seven states — all of which opposed the climate-focused Clean Power Plan — account for more than a third of FEMA spending to help communities rebuild after and adapt for natural disasters in the past 10 years, according to figures from the agency. Those states, including Texas and Florida, received $21 billion between them.

‘Ticking time bombs’

Small and seemingly benign, Harless Creek meanders beside a road that shares its name. Homes sit nearby between two mountains — Todd Bentley’s among them.

On a sunny day in June, his family gathered at his mother’s hair salon, a white-paneled house with a wooden porch that overlooks the creek.

Around a coffee table cluttered with newspaper clippings and photos of the flood, they remembered Bentley’s grandmother escaping up the mountain that night in 2010 in her pajamas, a quilt over her head. His mother, Janie Caudill, racing back from Tennessee, stopping only to pick up rubber boots. Residents shining flashlights across the creek to signal that they were alive.

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Sisters Judi Casalino (left) and Janie Caudill (right) sit at the hair salon Caudill owns. Both sisters have suffered from flooding: Janie lost her salon in the 2010 flood, and Judi’s nearby home has flooded multiple times.

The next day, Caudill’s uncle, Bill Blackburn, stopped by on the way to his house. He lived in the hollow and also hadn’t been there during the storm.

“He said, ‘Well, I’ve got to go home … I’ve got the keys right here in my pocket,’” Caudill remembered. “We didn’t have the heart to tell him that he didn’t have a door there to unlock.”

Pike County has a history of flash floods. Officials here cut a mountain in two in the 1970s so they could reroute the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River to avoid flooding, a $78 million operation that was one of the largest land movements in the Western hemisphere. But Harless Creek took everyone aback.

Seven inches of rain fell between 4 p.m. July 17, 2010, and 1 a.m. the next day. By 8:40 p.m., Harless Creek was over its banks, transforming into a torrent. The floodwaters damaged, destroyed and in some cases carried off more than 100 people’s property: homes, vehicles, sheds. In a county where nearly 30 percent of residents live in poverty, it represented an especially heavy loss.

The amount of rain the storm dumped was brutal, but Bentley and other residents suspected that nearby coal mines played a significant role in the flood. They hired lawyer Ned Pillersdorf, who asked an engineering firm to investigate.

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Ned Pillersdorf represents the victims of the Harless Creek flood in ongoing litigation.

The firm’s findings: The operations of two companies’ mines in the mountains above the neighborhood increased the size and speed of the flood. That’s because unstable dirt and rock surfaces exposed through mining sent more water downhill instead of absorbing it, Spadaro said. Forty-four percent more water rushed into the area, the firm concluded, increasing the “destructive energy of the flood waters.”

On behalf of the people with property damage, Pillersdorf sued both mines’ owners, Cambrian Coal and AEP Kentucky Coal. The businesses’ failure to follow mining rules worsened the flood and residents’ losses from the incident, he alleged in the lawsuit. The companies settled over the next two years, the amounts confidential.

Then Pillersdorf went after the party Bentley’s family thinks ultimately is at fault: the state of Kentucky.

First he sued the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, alleging the agency didn’t properly enforce mining rules — endangering residents — and demanding the state do its job. In 2014, the agency agreed to a confidential settlement and brought in federal investigators to ensure the mines complied with the law.

He later filed another claim against the state. Harless Creek residents requested payment from Kentucky’s claims board, asserting that the energy cabinet’s negligence increased their flood losses, but the cabinet argued that these claims were filed too late. An appellate court recently agreed with the state. The Kentucky Supreme Court is considering whether to review the decision.

Sitting inside his first-floor office in Prestonsburg, west of Pike County, Pillersdorf said it doesn’t surprise locals that companies would ignore mining rules to save money.

“What they don’t understand is, why is the state so damn indifferent to how dangerous these ticking time-bombs are?” he said.

After the storm, the state issued citations to Cambrian Coal for violations that included mining without a permit, inappropriate cleanup and poorly designed and operated sediment ponds, which are intended to capture soil moved during operations. The penalty, after Cambrian Coal appealed, was eventually set at about $50,000. The state cited AEP Kentucky Coal for improper conditions that led to mudslides, fining the company $400.

U.S. taxpayers paid more than five times those combined penalties — almost $300,000 — just to rebuild Harless Creek Road, according to federal data obtained by Public Integrity.

AEP Kentucky Coal maintains it didn’t contribute to the flood. The state mine regulator’s spokesman agreed. The residents’ engineering firm did not. While the company settled, it did not admit liability and only “participated in the settlement to promote a prompt conclusion to the case,” AEP spokeswoman Melissa McHenry wrote in an email.

Cambrian Coal didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Neither did Booth Energy, which previously owned the company.

Bentley’s family has far more complicated feelings about the mine owners than about the state’s handling of the situation.

Bentley’s son, Tyler, now 24, is a coal miner. So were Bentley’s father and grandfather, and Bentley himself, before an accident on the job in 2002 left him unable to work. Judi Casalino, his aunt, used to be a sales executive for a coal company.

“It’s hard for me,” she said. “I know that coal mining had a whole lot to do with what happened up here,” but she couldn’t help but also think of Cambrian Coal’s economic impact.

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Todd Bentley’s family and neighbor sit at the hair salon owned by his mother, Janie Caudill, on Harless Creek Road in June. From right to left are Janie and Bob Caudill, Judi Casalino, Bentley and Lonnie Matney, their neighbor.

She pointed to Jim Booth, who’d long run the company: “That one man employs 500-something people right now in eastern Kentucky, so let’s give him credit where credit’s due. If he weren’t in the business, it’d be a whole lot of people would have no jobs.”

Just days before, though Casalino didn’t know it, Booth had resigned as a director and shareholder at the company. Shortly afterward, Cambrian Coal and related businesses filed for bankruptcy protection. As of early October, the company owed local governments and schools more than $1 million in unpaid taxes, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.

Today, the mines that settled with neighbors over the flood have been cleaned up, according to the state. But people here remain shaken.

One neighbor sleeps in her clothes every night “because she’s afraid she might have to get out,” Caudill said, while Bentley, his stepfather and his son “get really paranoid” if there’s a storm brewing. Some people are gone: They couldn’t bear to live here after the flood.

And Blackburn, the uncle who didn’t have the door to lock? Two years afterward, he was dead.

“He grieved himself to death,” Caudill said. “He just couldn’t deal with what he’d lost.”

Power and the powerless

Five days after Cambrian Coal settled the lawsuit brought by Harless Creek residents, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., delivered a tribute on the Senate floor to a fellow Kentuckian — Cambrian’s then-owner, Booth.

Booth is a “treasured citizen,” “someone who has taken it upon himself to make an investment in the betterment of his community, county and state,” McConnell said. “Booth’s story is one of success in the free market, and a testimony to what can happen when a small business is given room to take root and grow.”

What prompted this 2012 outpouring by McConnell, one of the most powerful men in Washington, isn’t clear.

But Booth, named by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting in 2014 as one of “Kentucky’s top 10 ‘power players,’” is a reliable political donor who has supported many of the state’s key officials, including McConnell, Bevin and Beshear, the attorney general.

Bevin tried to unseat McConnell in the 2014 Republican primary, and Beshear — a Democrat — is running against Bevin in the governor’s race this year. But when it comes to coal, they’re on the same page.

Beshear took over his predecessor’s legal fight to block the Clean Power Plan. McConnell marshaled states across the country to resist the rule, and this year — five weeks after acknowledging that human activities are changing the climate — declined to bring up for a vote a bill to keep the U.S. from pulling out of the international agreement to slow global warming. Bevin tapped a former coal executive to head the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet and pressed an electric utility earlier this year not to close a coal plant.

Newton, the Beshear spokesman, wrote in an email that the attorney general bases his policy decisions on what he believes is best for Kentuckians.

McConnell, Bevin and Booth didn’t respond to requests for comment. But as recently as this month, McConnell called the Clean Power Plan a “misguided,” “job-killing” and ineffective approach to addressing climate change. Bevin has argued that such rules would suffocate businesses and wouldn’t help anyone. And in a 2013 interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader, Booth said, “When we say there’s a war on coal, we’re sincere.”

The coal mining industry has sunk at least $2.2 million into state and federal Kentucky elections since 2012, according to data from the National Institute on Money in Politics. But these companies don’t need donations to get politicians on their side.

“In Kentucky, it’s more the perception,” said Erin Savage, a program manager for Appalachian Voices, an environmental group. “If you’re not a friend of coal, then you’re not going to get the votes.”

Despite the sector’s enduring political power, coal bankruptcies are mounting as competition from natural gas, solar and wind intensifies. That creates problems beyond job losses: Kentucky and states across the country haven’t required companies to set aside enough money to clean up mines when operations cease.

Mary Cromer, deputy director of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, worries that the fallout from rising bankruptcies and idled mines could mean more sites that increase flood risks. Her team, which represents coal miners, their families and others in Central Appalachia pro bono, can’t keep up with the demand for help as it is, she said.

That’s because Kentucky law makes it hard for people to get legal assistance with damage caused by mine-worsened floods. Coal companies aren’t required to pay victims’ attorney fees — as they would be if they’d instead contaminated local drinking water — so that expense often comes out of any settlement or court-ordered payout. Too often, Cromer said, cases don’t make financial sense for a private attorney to take.

Harless Creek residents benefited from a perverse sort of luck: They were so numerous that they could seek help from the same lawyer and spread the impact of the fees between them. On top of that, they alleged that the flood damaged well water, not just their homes.

But that wasn’t the case for Laura Thacker and her husband, Elvis, when their property in another part of the county was damaged — twice. They live next to the Bevins Branch mine, owned by the Justice family.

The state began negotiating with companies connected to the West Virginia governor and his relatives in 2014 to resolve hundreds of violations there and at other mines. In 2016, after that work was supposed to be completed, a flood destroyed the Thackers’ home. That same day, the state cited the mine for not meeting runoff control requirements. Similar flooding damaged the Thacker’s garage in 2018. The Justice companies blamed the incident on the rain, but the state pointed to the poor cleanup of the mine.

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Elvis Thacker holds material swept down from the neighboring mine.

The settlements the Justice company offered the couple weren’t enough to cover the cost of rebuilding, Thacker said. But the lawyer she consulted warned that attorney fees would probably eat up whatever extra money they won if they went to trial. The Thackers had to replace their house with a smaller double-wide trailer. Their loan payment costs them $200 more a month. They couldn’t afford to move.

“People don’t understand when you go through a flood how fast everything can be taken away from you,” Thacker said. “We don’t have anything at all against coal. But … there’s rules and regulations that they need to follow.”

Mura, the Kentucky mine regulator spokesman, wrote in an email that the state is taking further action to ensure the Justice companies comply with their permit. Spokespeople for the companies and the West Virginia governor’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

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Debris left by flood waters on the Thackers’ property.

Spadaro, the former federal regulator, said state officials who don’t require mines to promptly fix problems put people at risk. Violations are common. Only 57 percent of Kentucky mines inspected from July 2017 to June 2018 fully complied with the law, according to the most recent federal evaluation. More than one in 10 permitted sites had infractions that created off-site impacts, the report said.

A spokesman for the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement put a positive spin on it, noting that the share of Kentucky mines out of compliance with the law was the lowest in a decade.

Spadaro, who investigated for West Virginia the notorious 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster, in which three coal-related dams in that state failed and killed 125 people, has a harsher perspective: “There’s not one mine that I have found in compliance.”

‘Say a prayer’

Doug Tackett, Pike County’s emergency management director, isn’t sure what to think about climate change. Sitting in his downtown Pikeville office in June, he explained that he regularly hears from the National Weather Service about weather cycles, not the planet’s warming. The rhetoric about climate change causes and solutions is confusing, too, he said.

“They blame it on things like fossil fuels and stuff like that. But I don’t think you’ll ever get away from fossil fuels,” said Tackett, surrounded by computers, a large radio console and a walkie-talkie that murmured continuously. “It keeps the economy and everything else moving.”

Rachel Leven, Center for Public Integrity

Doug Tackett, head of Pike County’s emergency management division, stands at the top of the Pikeville Cut-Through in June. Officials cut a mountain in two in the 1970s, rerouting a river to avoid flooding. It was one of the largest land movements in the Western hemisphere.

A little more than half the county’s residents believe climate change is happening and 44 percent say it’s mostly caused by human activity, a lower share than the nation as a whole, according to a 2019 survey by the Yale Program on Climate Communication. When politicians express doubt about climate science, that has an effect, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale’s program.

What Tackett is certain about: He’s never seen anything like the Harless Creek disaster.

It was one of two flash floods in Pike County that July night. In the other, rescue teams were able to navigate the waters to save people in 75 homes.

In Harless Creek, that wasn’t possible. Water that normally burbled a shallow 6 inches in the creek bed had become a 12-foot-deep monster that split a house in half and carried a couple down the hollow as they held on in terror. If responders went in, Tackett said, they would have been killed. He waited, feeling helpless, trying to anticipate what people would need when it was all over.

“Neighbors were trapped, and nobody could get to them,” he said. “You say a prayer and hope they’re OK.”

Afterward, Tackett’s team trained more swift-water rescue teams. And in flood-prone areas, the county has helped elevate some homes.

But preparation only goes so far. If another flood like Harless Creek happened, Tackett said, the rushing water would still keep rescuers out. It would destroy everything in its path. Again.

Whether people lived or died would come down to luck and how well they could fend for themselves.

 

Rachel Leven and Zach Goldstein reported this story for the Center for Public Integrity. Joe Yerardi with Public Integrity and Sydney Boles with Ohio Valley ReSource contributed to this article. Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative newsroom in Washington, D.C.

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